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A new law aims to strengthen rural water systems

Flooding pushed trees onto this bank in the Mimbres. The river should be flowing just beyond this buildup. Pictured on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Acequias recognized by the state can soon form associations to help with funding, work and keeping water flowing to New Mexicans

Anita LaRan has sat on the board of her water system in Mora County that connects dozens of homes to clean water since 2008.

A few hours south in San Ysidro, Ramón Lucero used to help run the system in the community where he raised his family and now works with people in the same position across the state to keep their water flowing, even as the workforce dwindles.

These two New Mexicans live in different communities and are connected by more than the water streams that provide fresh water for residents and agriculture, while also responding to the destruction caused by wildfires. They’ve seen crucial work go unfinished because people age out, pass on, cannot juggle their paying jobs with the volunteer work, or are left displaced by the wildfire destruction.

“I kind of got stuck with everything, and it’s kind of like a full-time job,” LaRan said.

Legislation passed by lawmakers in Santa Fe this year, and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week could allow hundreds of small water systems that exist in the state to create associations that can collectively seek funding for repair work and, among other priorities, find the expertise to fill out required paperwork by state and federal entities.

Lucero saw the need for rural residents in his northern New Mexico community to move away, and then how that impacted the work to keep water flowing to residents.

“It left very few people in the community that were actually keeping up with maintenance,” he said.

How it will work

The new law called the Regional Water System Resiliency Act was sponsored by Sens. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and Liz Stefanics (D-Cerillos) along with Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo).

Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law on March 13.

It creates the framework for these communities to efficiently pay people to work across multiple systems and ensure these places get reliable, safe water.

Under the law, two or more water associations in New Mexico can create an authority to form economies of scale and get more done. It allows them to elect leadership, run water facilities, create fee structures and use that money to keep up with maintenance, including road work to access acequias. They can also hire people to meet administrative demands across multiple systems, which is key in applying for federal or state money.

But it doesn’t require anyone to do it.

The water associations must be recognized by the New Mexico State Engineer and are ultimately approved by the Secretary of State.

Herrera said this is one of the most important pieces of legislation this session for her district in northern New Mexico.

“Because we have climate change, we have drought, we have fires, we have aging water systems and people don’t have the money or resources to fix them,” she said.

Consolidating water district needs

In 2016, LaRan helped form the Mora County Water Alliance, which connects five water systems.

The workload became so great, she and her colleagues began looking around for other small water systems to combine forces with, hoping that together, they could get more done and afford more services to address needs that weren’t being met.

Seven years later, they haven’t been able to lock in the team needed to keep the systems intact, test water health and file state-required reports.

Some systems took a hit with the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire last year. And she doesn’t believe the alliance in Mora is ready for a future with more instability brought on by climate change.

“We still don’t have someone on board to do the reporting, billing and bookkeeping,” she said.

She said there are also fewer people to do the manual work, like shoveling debris in ditches and access points in some of the water systems, especially acequias.

Lucero noticed similar problems.

“As we started moving from that generation to future generations, they got further from the day-to-day operations of the water system and further especially from all the reporting requirements,” Lucero, who works as a field manager for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, said.

He said the problem began in the early 20th century, as Northern New Mexicans moved away for jobs in bigger cities and other states.

As people continue to move out of those communities, age out of the work or simply don’t have time to do it alongside full-time work and caring for family, or have been displaced by the massive fire, these systems don’t receive vital maintenance.

The infrastructure aged, and the new people running it couldn’t get funds from the state to fix it because they hadn’t been meeting the reporting requirements, which they didn’t understand. Lucero said at this point, the system requires a lot from volunteers that just isn’t sustainable.

His job is to help them navigate the reporting system so they can get the money to keep their water systems in shape. He said his organization has fewer than 10 employees working with about 80 communities in the state alongside two other technical assistance providers.

“We just can’t keep up with that anymore. There’s just too many compliance issues, too many communities that lack the capacity to keep up,” he said.

A few communities in the state have dealt with this problem by combining resources to hire staff to work across a number of small systems. Lucero said those were a model for the Regional Water Resiliency Act, which he helped write.

Herrera, one of the bill’s sponsors, said this new law will help consolidate the patchwork relief she’s relied on as a legislator.

“In the past, I would put $50,000 Band-Aids on $5 million projects,” she added. To get money for these systems, she’d have to support separate legislation for each. Once they join together, they can go after state and federal money together through legislation or grants.

Herrera said that the New Mexico Finance Authority will incentivize mutual domestic water associations if they regionalize, or create the authorities.

In Mora County, LaRan has not only advocated for this type of cooperation between water systems, but saw firsthand the complications it can bring.

“Sometimes we don’t want to give up control,” LaRan said about the water associations in Mora County. “But I believe that a water system should be run like a business. It should be able to meet financial burdens. It should be able to have some funds available for major breakdowns.”

And she emphasized that while she sees this law as a help to that cause, there’s still a lot of work to do. Most importantly, the Mora County Water Alliance needs funds.

She said once that happens, the group can start to make plans not just for survival, but long-term resiliency.

“At the community level, a lot of people are still reacting,” she said, referring to damage caused by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. “But I think our goal should be to plan way ahead in the future because with climate change, we’re liable to have many more disasters.”

To read more articles from Source New Mexico, visit https://sourcenm.com/.